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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

by Andrew D. Anderson

In the 1850's the herring industry was reaching its peak in the Wick area. During the summer fishery, the fleet consisted of over 500 boats drawn from the fishing communities around the coasts of Scotland and beyond. They were usually small and either open or half‑decked with little facilities or protection for the crews.

Until about 1800, these vessels operated from beaches and rock ledges adjacent to the villages and areas they served. There was no harbour as such at Wick until the British Fisheries Society commenced their construction scheme. In spite of that work, and also later extensions, the depth of water at the harbour entrance during low tide led to problems. These were considerably increased when gales from the east and south‑cast sent huge waves surging up the bay.

When conditions in Wick Bay were dangerous, vessels sought shelter in Sinclair Bay to await safer passage. However even there, accidents and groundings did occur when the wind swung round to the north‑east. Lives were lost, but many acts of bravery saved others.

On 7th October 1847 a large brig, Warrior of Montrose commanded by Captain Mearns and carrying a cargo of railway sleepers was disabled off the Skerries when a huge wave damaged the steering. There was a strong gale from the east‑south‑east accompanied by a heavy swell and the vessel was eventually driven ashore near the old castle of Keiss.

Mr Bremner (civil engineer) along with many locals who had gathered on the shore set up a sliding apparatus (similiar to that of the Mamby) and were thus able to rescue the crew of nine ‑ one later died.

On 19th November 1860, the Wick sloop Maria, was unable to enter Wick harbour because of the strong swell running in the bay. It made its way northwards and anchored in Sinclair Bay in very heavy weather. By next morning conditions had deteriorated to such an extent that help was urgently required to save the two man crew of the Maria.

Captain Tudor of the Board of Fisheries set out by gig with lines and lifebelts while arrangements were made to transport the Wick lifeboat overland to Ackergill on a carriage pulled by a team of horses ‑ Wick harbour was closed by heavy seas.

When Captain Tudor arrived at Ackergill the urgency of the situation demanded immediate action. He dared not wait for the lifeboat to arrive. A vessel belonging to the Caithness Steam Shipping Company was pressed into service and moved from Ackergill harbour to shorelands beach ‑ just opposite the Maria.

The crew consisted of Captain Tudor, Finlay Maclean, William Thain (snr.), David Taylor, James Donaldson, William Thain Unr.), Roderick McLeod, John Sutherland, John Oag and George Cormack. The boat used for shipping goods and animals, was a similar shape to that of the old lifeboat and made expressly for landing passengers at Ackergill when weather prevented the steamer calling at Wick.

In spite of heavy seas, often sweeping over and threatening to swamp the boat, they were eventually able to secure alongside. The two men were plucked to safety after spending a night and a day in miserable conditions.  Despite a hazardous journey, the rescue boat was successfully beached with the aid of willing shore helpers. The behaviour of the boat was highly commended by spectators on the shore. Wick lifeboat arrived shortly afterwards.

For this service, the Privy Council of the Board of Trade, awarded the Government Silver Medal to Captain Tudor RN and the Bronze Medal plus two pounds to each member of the crew who had taken part in the rescue. The R.N.L.I. also rewarded Captain Tudor with his second silver clasp.

An Aukengill boat with three men on board was reported to be in distress in Sinclair Bay on the afternoon of 19th December 1870. Because of the heavy seas running it was impossible for them to land or for help to be given from the shore.  At midnight their cries were heard in Ackergill and the British Fisheries lifeboat at Wick was taken by road to Shorelands ‑ arriving at two a.m. There was a strong easterly gale, but as there was no sign of the boat, the lifeboat was not launched. Next day wreckage was washed ashore at Broadhaven.

On 4th September 1871, a deeply laden schooner was seen just off Wick Bay in the late afternoon. There was a severe storm from the south‑east, but by skilful seamanship, she was taken round Noss Head and anchored in Sinclair Bay. Next morning she appeared to be in iminent danger of being driven ashore. Wick lifeboat was rushed by road to Ackergill and launched into the harbour before a large crowd of onlookers.

After considerable difficulty the lifeboat succeeded in reaching the vessel and rescued the crew. A heavy sea was running but all were landed safely on the shore. The seas moderated two days later and the crew were able to reboard the Braes of Enzie and sail her to Wick with her load of coal.

The Russian barque An Revoir of Riga, 341 tons, in ballast from Le Havre to her home port and commanded by Captain Bode, was driven by a strong east‑south‑east gale before running aground near Keiss Castle on 22nd December 1876. The rocket apparatus crew from Wick, by means of a breeches buoy, rescued the crew of eleven in spite of the huge waves breaking over the stranded vessel.

On 23rd December 1876 the schooner Emelie of Wolgast, 120 tons, and carrying coal from Sunderland was driven ashore a quarter of a mile north of Ackergill Tower. She had been driven before the gale for several days and had narrowly missed Noss Head before going aground.

A crowd quickly gathered and the rocket apparatus, on its way home from the wreck of the An Revoir was set up. It took some time to get a line aboard the stranded vessel (a fresh set of rockets had to be sent for from Wick and by then conditions had worsened considerably). The vessel was being constantly swept by heavy seas and the crew of six had assembled in the rigging. They had great difficulty in reaching the rocket line which was lodged between the masts.

Because of the delay, a salmon coble was taken overland from Ackergill village. Captain John Cormack took charge and an eager crowd of volunteers rushed to help. When it was eventually launched through the breakers, it was seen that a total of nine men were on board. Onlookers suggested that it was overloaded and over-manned and that there was little room on board for survivors.

By means of a line from the shore to the stranded vessel and hard work on the oars , they were able to get near to the wreck. Three men slid down a line from the rigging into the coble. By now it was greatly overloaded and a decision was taken to head for the shore. The line attached to the wreck had become fouled on the keel of the coble, and as it left the shelter of the Emelie, it was swamped and overturned by a succession of heavy seas. All were thrown into the water and the three survivors (cold and exhausted) quickly disappeared along with one of the volunteers. The other eight, some clinging to the overturned coble, were swept along with the waves and up onto the beach. Only five survived. Captain Cormack who had been injured on the rocks, later died.

The crew who manned the coble were William Gunn (Staxigoe), Robert Bain (Boathaven), John Sutherland (Pulteneytown), Captain John Cormack, Francis Downie, William Bruce (snr.), William Bruce (jnr.) Finlay McLean and Donald Rosie. The first four, together with five men from the Emelie died in this disaster.  As a result of the incident, the Emperor of Germany awarded the sum of sixty pounds to be divided among the three seamen who were drowned. The widow of Captain Cormack received an inscribed Bible.

On 23rd January 1877 Commander Prowse RN was sent to Wick to enquire into the loss of life at Ackergill. One of the main witnesses was Mr Allan McLeod who had been coxswain of Wick lifeboat for nineteen years. He was also in charge of the rocket apparatus crew during the rescue of eleven men from the An Revoir and had spent the night there.

In answer to questioning, he stated that although seven hours had elapsed from the sighting of the stranded vessel to the capsizing of the salmon coble, no real attempt had been made to move the Wick lifeboat to Ackergill. It appears that there was a total lack of urgency in the early stages about preparations by the crew to leave the vessel and they were engaged in packing personal effects when the conditions suddenly deteriorated. Only then was the seriousness of the situation fully realised. Later it was said that Wick lifeboat could not he taken through the bay because of the huge waves nor across the bridge owing to its width.

After the enquiry into the disaster, the R.N.L.I. was approached to consider the possibility of establishing a local lifeboat presence.

On 14th March 1878, the lifeboat arrived in Wick by rail and was transported on its carriage through the streets of Wick and thereafter to the beach at Reiss. There, she was named George and Isabella, by Mrs Duff Dunbar and later launched to the delight of the spectators. The self‑righting lifeboat was built by Woolfe and was 30 feet long, 8 feet broad, eight oared and cost 275.00. The lifeboat‑house was constructed by Mr Charleson for 320.00 and designed by Mr Brims. Materials and a site near Ackergill Tower were provided by Mr Duff Dunbar. The launching carriage cost 136.00.

Over 400.00 was raised locally to maintain the station. The lifeboat was donated by Miss Ann Bower of Wilmslow, Cheshire.

Mr William Thain was appointed coxswain, Mr George Sutherland of Bridge Street as Honorary Secretary, with Mr G. Duff Dunbar as President of the Ackergill branch of the R.N.L.I.

In 1886, due to difficulties in launching, the boathouse was moved from its original to its present site overlooking the harbour and rebuilt at a cost of 200.00.

On 10th January 1887, fifty two vessels left Wick for the fishing ground. During the night a fierce gale sprang up and many had to abandon their nets and run for shelter. Several attempted Wick Bay and reached the harbour in safety. The majority set off north, seven anchoring in Sinclair Bay, while the remainder sailed on to Scrabster.

Ackergill lifeboat was alerted but because of wind and waves at the harbour it had to he dragged across country to Shorelands and from there to an inlet opposite the boats in danger. Many people willingly helped but much time was lost. There was an additional delay caused by patching a hole on the waterline made when the boat struck one of the gate‑posts as it was taken from the boathouse.

In the meantime, a small passenger boat, manned by the usual crew under the control of Charles Nicholson, and owned by the North of Scotland Steam Shipping Co. set out to help. After a struggle they reached the nearest boat, (WK 1444 ‑ skippered by Robert Cook), rescued the crew and landed them at Ellensgoe. This was where the lifeboat had been taken. Between them the two rescue boats saved all of the men ‑ thirty by the lifeboat and twenty four by the steamer boat.

About this time Wick lifeboat arrived ‑ too late to give assistance but, nevertheless, their efforts were appreciated. The real heroes were the crew of the steamer boat who had been sent by their employers from Wick to give assistance in the emergency.

In January 1888, the George and Isabella, was replaced by the Jonathan Marshall, Sheffield. She was built by Woolfe and was 34 feet long, 7 feet 6 inches broad, 10 oared, self‑righter and cost 329.00. It was provided from a legacy by Col. E.A.D. Brooscroft of Kirk Ella in Yorkshire.

On 8th May 1889 the brig Hermick ‑ 209 tons, of Christiansand, Norway, with a cargo of spars and pit‑props for Gloucester went ashore in thick fog between Wester Burn and the old boathouse. A local boat, skippered by James Renderson, in spite of a heavy swell, was able to rescue the eight members of crew and land them at Keiss.

During the salvage operations on 10th May, the crew were trapped when a sudden south east gale with heavy seas arose. The ship's boat which had been used between ship and shore was torn from its moorings and smashed on the shore. The lifeboat from Ackergill under coxswain William Thain and the rocket crew from Wick were alerted and made for the scene. Heavy seas were crashing over the wreck, which was well within the breakers, as the lifeboat drew near. Although they were able to make fast a line, the motion was so violent that it was soon broken and the lifeboat was driven to leeward. In spite of the efforts of the crew, the lifeboat was thrown up on the beach, and although repeated attempts were made the lifeboat could not be relaunched.

By that time the rocket apparatus team had arrived and were able to rescue the crew by means of breeches buoy. Alexander Wares of the Wick Volunteer Lifesaving Company was awarded the Bronze Medal of the Board of Trade for his part in the rescue.

In 1890, Mr George Sutherland retired as Honorary Secretary and was replaced by the Town Clerk of Wick, Mr Hector Sutherland.

On 16th September 1892, the smack Gem of Dublin on passage from Fraserburgh to Wick for a cargo of herrings for Ireland, anchored in Sinclair Bay for shelter from a southerly gale. During the late afternoon the wind swung round to north‑north‑east and heavy seas were whipped up in the bay. In an attempt to get round Noss Head, the anchor was lifted, but the Gem was swept towards the rocks.

The lifeboat, under coxswain William Thain was quickly launched and made for the scene, where it rescued four men in very difficult conditions. As it was unable to return to Ackergill because of the adverse state of wind and tide, it was moored in a small inlet overnight while the storm abated. The Gem was eventually driven ashore and badly holed ‑ the wreck being sold the following week for 8.00.

In July 1894 William Thain retired as coxswain and was succeeded by David Thain.

On 2nd June 1895 the steamer State of Georgia, 2500 tons, of Aberdeen (Captain R. Crombie) went ashore in dense fog at the mouth of the Wester Burn. Ackergill lifeboat was launched but was not required as the steamer refloated on the incoming tide.

On 10th December 1895 the R.N.L.I. took over the operation of Wick lifeboat. Mr Hector Sutherland, Honorary Secretary of the Ackergill station was also appointed to the same position at Wick.

On 17th November 1902 the sloop Catherine of Wick with a cargo of potatoes anchored in Sinclair Bay to shelter from a southerly gale. During the night the wind increased considerably and in spite of lowering a third anchor, she was in grave danger of dragging ashore. Ackergill lifeboat was launched at daybreak and the three men were rescued and landed at the harbour. The Catherine rode out the gale and was taken to Wick when the weather moderated.

Early in the morning of 1st January 1903, the steam drifter Violet of Helmsdale was washed ashore north of the Wester Burn. There were three men aboard and they were taking the vessel from Stromness to Wick after engine repairs.

When they left, although the forecast was poor, the weather was reasonable and they made good progress until they reached Duncansby. They continued their journey under deteriorating conditions to the entrance of Wick Bay. Near Proudfoot the steering gear was damaged and the Violet was driven north wards by the south‑easterly wind and swell. When ashore the vessel was constantly awash with the heavy seas. A raft was made of hatch covers and Mr Angus (master) was swept north along the coast before making land. The other two refused to join him preferring to stay on the Violet and take their chance.

A considerable time elapsed before news of the grounding reached the authorities and it was 10 a.m. before help started to arrive. The rocket apparatus team had early success in firing a line across the stranded vessel and that was made fast in spite of difficulties.

Just then the Ackergill lifeboat under coxswain David Thain arrived on the scene. As they were positioning for the run‑in a huge wave struck the Violet and killed one of the two men left aboard. The same sea swept the lifeboat against the wreck ‑ breaking four of the oars - and it was in grave danger of being driven ashore. This would undoubtably have happened if the line to the wreck, connected by the rocket team, had not been caught by those aboard the lifeboat. By this means they were able to haul back towards the Violet. The surviving member wrapped a line round his body and was drawn through the surf to the lifeboat. The body of the other was recovered at low tide.

On 11th April 1905 four fishing boats left Wick to collect lines which had been set the previous day. In the morning the sea was calm but as the day wore on a heavy swell sent breakers crashing across the harbour entrance. Three boats went north in search of calmer waters but the other remained at the mouth of Wick Bay. Ackergill lifeboat under coxswain David Thain was launched to help and after about two hours was able to escort the three boats to a safe anchorage in Sinclair Bay. The nine men were landed at Ackergill.

Meantime, Wick lifeboat had been launched when it was seen that the fourth boat was in difficulties. The John Avins under coxswain Alex Mackay had just left the harbour when it was struck by a succession of heavy waves and dashed against the North Quay. Four of the crew were thrown into the water but fortunately were able to reboard the lifeboat as it was swept up the back of the quay and on to the rocks. The crew were rescued by lines and lifebelts and pulled up over the parapet but the lifeboat was badly damaged and withdrawn from service. The yawl which had been in trouble went south and eventually reached Occumster.

In 1907 the Jonathan Marshall, Sheffield was replaced by Co‑Operator No. 3. She was built by the Thames Ironworks and was 37 feet long, 8 feet 6 inches broad, 10 oared selfrighter costing 1048. It was provided by the Manchester Central Co‑Operative Society.

There had been problems in launching at Ackergill throughout the years and on several occasions damage to the lifeboat caused delay. The lifeboat on her carriage had to be hauled from the boathouse and then down a steeply sloping beach for the launch.

Because of the difficulties with the larger and heavier new lifeboat it was decided to build a slipway. This was the first Ferro‑concrete lifeboat slipway built for the RN.L.I. and cost 1610.00. The lifeboat sat in the open under a protective cover at the top of the slipway and was much easier to launch.

In 1913 David Thain retired as coxswain and was replaced by James Thain.

On 28th December 1930 the Co ‑ Operator No. 3 was launched for what proved to be her only effective service in twenty‑five years. The Admiralty trawler Fair Isle ran ashore near Ackergill and the lifeboat stood‑by and gave help in rough seas and strong winds while refloating took place.

In August 1930 James Thain died after a short illness ‑ having been coxswain of the Ackergill lifeboat for seventeen years. His place was taken by Alexander Flett.

At the meeting of the R.N.L.I. Committee of Management on 14th April 1932 it was decided to close the Ackergill station and the lifeboat was withdrawn shortly afterwards.

The boat was sold to Capt. Grant of North Kessock and converted to a cabin cruiser. During the war it was operated by the Admiralty in the Moray Firth area. Later it was sold for lobster fishing on the Clyde.

On 25th October 1934 the Wick fishing boat Northward had engine failure and drifted ashore near Ackergill. The former coxswain Alexander Flett set out in his motor‑boat and rescued two of the crew and the fishing gear. As the weather deteriorated he again set out and rescued the three remaining fishermen.

During the fifty five years of the Ackergill station the lifeboat was launched on service fifteen times and saved thirty eight lives. The men who manned the lifeboat and helped at the launching in those days have been succeeded in these traditions and devotion to duty by many who are still ready to answer the call for help by those in peril.

William Thain           March 1878 ‑ June 1894
David Thain             July 1894 ‑ July 1913
James Thain            October 1913 ‑ August 1930
Alexander Flett         October 1930 ‑ July 1932

George & Isabella                   1877‑1888
Jonathan Marshall, Sheffield     1888‑1907
Co ‑ Operator No. 3                 1907‑1932

Co-operator No 3 on the new slip at Ackergill. It was powered by 10 oars.

It was too big for the Lifeboat House (centre) and was kept covered as shown.

Until the new slip was built it was hauled round the house on left of picture and launched down the slip (left of picture)

Launching problems resulted in the building of the first ferro-concrete slip.

This is shown, right, at the opening ceremony in April 1910.

There were five Thains and five Flets in the crew shown.

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